Interview and pics by Arto Lehtinen
Transcription by David Groves
You have been doing the European tour, crisscrossing Europe by playing in small places and larger ones. How has it been in general?
We’ve actually played some pretty nice places, some well known places. We’ve been all over really, from Essen, Germany to Eindhoven to Bologna, Italy. We played in Slovenia, in Kranj. That was the most off the hook show we had, down in Kranj. We played in Aschaffenburg, Colossaal; Hamburg, it’s been all over, criss-crossing all over Europe. I don’t know how many thousands of kilometres we’ve done on this bus.
Do you have to finance the tour from your own pockets or do you have some financial support on the background?
Right now tour support is limited. We did get some free merchandise from our label to help defer some of the costs and things of that nature but pretty much it just comes in from the guarantees. So it’s pretty much financed it by ourselves.
And what about this Sweden Rock?
The Sweden Rock Festival is the last show for this run – end it with a bang, you know. It’s the first time Helstar has come to Sweden so it’s exciting for us. But it’s cold! So this is our last show, we’ll drive back to Hamburg and then leave Monday morning. Then we come back and play two more festivals in Europe. We play the Headbanger’s open Air in late July and we’re doing the Alcatraz festival with Saxon and Testament.
NEW ALBUMS AND NEW ERA
SINS OF THE PAST is a collection album consisting of re-recorded versions of the old Helstar classic songs, how did you come up to do this album? Basically several old bands do the same thing.
Well I can’t speak for the other bands but as far as we’re concerned the thing was that we couldn’t get any cooperation from our former labels to be able to say ‘hey, why don’t we put out some remastered, remixed, not just repackaged versions of the stuff. Give us a small budget to go in and remix them’. But that really never worked out. We don’t own the rights to those recordings from way back when, so we said ‘well you know what, we own the music, so we can re-record the music’ and that’s really where it came from. If we can’t get a remixed, remastered version, we’ll just do a re-recorded version.
In that way you get the money by doing new versions of these old songs.
We only get certain rights to our music; publishing…it’s a complicated thing.
Did you want to test the water with the chemistry within the band to see how the band works?
Sure, yeah. Well what Sins of the Past was, in a sense, a way to reintroduce the band to maybe some people who hadn’t known us before and also to all the old fans. But it was also sort of a demo of sorts for “Tormentor” and “Caress of the Dead” which are now on The King of Hell. And we thought, let’s put a feeler out there and see what people think. And what better a way than to bring in some old songs, re-record them and then present two new songs to gauge if we’re heading in the right direction.
THE KING OF HELL is the new album, but was it easy to capture the Helstar magic when writing new songs as some old bands have problems to create killer songs, what about you?
Well I guess it’s for the fans to determine if we were able to capture it. We’ve had a lot of really great reviews and really once the creative juices started flowing. Larry and Russel and I had been in another band, another side project (Eternity Black), so we had been working together, doing a different style of metal, so when we came in and started doing Helstar stuff it took some time but eventually it just started to click (clicks fingers). Before you knew it we were just back to where we left off.
You are on AFM, was it a logical choice to sign with them?
I think that yes – knowing that our fan base is larger in Europe than in the States at this point, it’s hard to tell. The States is a weird thing too, you know, and we knew that realistically it was going to be harder to get some interest drummed up there from the Metal Blade’s or whatever. So we just started looking, we’d had some contacts and got in touch with AFM and they were all for it so here we are.
Back then you were on Metal Blade, do you still have some obligations to them?
No, no. Those deals were done close to 20 years ago so there’s nothing there.
How was the relationship with them back then?
Back at that time it was a good relationship. Especially these days with labels having to really watch their money they’ll be looking for younger bands that are ‘upstarts’. So there’s nothing really there at this point.
It was recorded and produced in your home state?
But with Sins of the Past, we recorded it mostly in Houston and James did the vocals in LA. This time we wanted to produce it ourselves along with a co-producer in Houston who was a man named Craig Douglasson. But we really all contributed to it, Larry, James and myself. And we say ‘you know what, let’s do it all here, let’s do it all in one place like we would normally have done back in the old days.’ It’s a little difficult to do it the other way sometimes.
THE BREAK UP AND AFTERLIFE
The last album MULTIPLE OF BLACK came out in the 90’s before the break-up, but it seems like no-one remembers that album?
Yeah, that one was a compilation, I wasn’t in the band at that time. James was trying to keep the Helstar name going and had some other players involved at that time. I don’t know exactly what the whole thing was but basically there was only so much to do the right way and the rest of it could not be done so, yeah I’m not really the best one to answer that.
As an outsider you could give your opinion on it?
Well, you know, that album does have a song that I wrote the music to which is “Good Day to Die”, so I think it’s got some pretty good stuff on it but again – the production is just all over the place. I can’t say that it’s one of my favourites but it’s definitely got its moments.
After that album Helstar broke-up you and James went your ways. But were you surprised when James came up with the Distant Thunder band named after the Helstar album?
I guess the choice of the name made sense – when he came out with A Distant Thunder. I think that he felt that he wanted to provide something as close to Helstar without saying ‘this is Helstar’. And I think he has stated in numerous interviews and such that he really wanted to do a Helstar album when he knew that it was going to be the right album. And as luck would happen, we got back together and now we have Helstar.
When you departed the band, did it happen on good terms or were there some sort of dispute? In general looking at the Helstar line-up there has been some line-up changes and Larry has almost been on every album except for the BLACK album.
It was just one thing or another. In the early days it was management stuff and when I left after the Remnants of War album and Larry left, that was really just a case of us being too young and not knowing what we were doing. Things were moving fast, the band wanted to relocated to LA, we were based in Houston…it was just a number of things. For me personally it just felt like it was time for me to do something else and so I left. And I think it was the same for Larry, he was just being a little burnt out, you know. So when he left, he walked away from music, he didn’t go join another band or anything like that. He walked away and just put his guitar under a bed basically.
As far as Eternity Black is cocerned, I have checked out a few songs on their myspace and they sound quite modern.
We had two demos with that band. The first one was a little – well we probably should have waited to do it. The second one was a lot better received and it was a lot flashier and old school sounding with some modern twists to it. We had fun with it, it got us back into playing and playing live and back out in the scene. We had a good time.
METAL IN THE US AND TEXAS
Helstar presents the classic US power/speed metal along with Agent Steel, Omen, Jag Panzer etc, but how do you look back at the old American speed/power melodic metal from your point of view?
How do I look at it? It was a great time, for all of us coming up in that era in the same school as Metallica, Slayer, Exodus, all those bands in the early 80’s. It was a pretty exciting time. It’s kind of cool to see that it’s come full circle with a lot of the younger bands that are coming out like Warbringer and Bonded by Blood and Fueled by Fire and those guys that are bringing back that classic thrash stuff. I don’t know if that answered your question but yeah it was exciting, we had great times, we did some great shows and made a lot of friends, what else can I say?
Helstar have a lot of great melodic songs, but for some reason you never got that big?
It could be any number of things, you know. One of the classic examples is when Nosferatu came out, some people now will say it was ahead of its time, but back then it wasn’t well received. It really didn’t score high with the critics and the fans. And that could have just been the shift in the way the music was going at the time, I don’t know. But why Helstar really never made it, I don’t know – could be bad business decisions, it could be just that we didn’t write the music people wanted to hear. When the Burning Star album came out and Ramparts of War came out, both got very high marks and we were up there with a lot of the bands who were on the way. It’s really hard to say why we couldn’t continue that. It could probably be because of the fact that there were so many constant line-up changes and the fans were still loyal to who was in the band at the time. So…who knows?
How was the Texas metal scene at that time?
The Texas thing was very cool. Especially in San Antonio, and even Austin had a very vibrant scene as well. And the funny thing was that back in the day we only played Dallas maybe one time and that was when we were touring with Anthrax. And I never really knew there was a big scene there as well, I mean we knew about Rigor Mortis and Pantera – we knew about Pantera back then but they were doing totally different stuff than they ended up doing, we all know they were doing more of the ‘cover’ stuff. Houston had a great scene, but really, San Antonio and Austin…and Corpus Christi – Devastation kind of gave that area some spotlight. So there were a lot of talented bands and musicians out there that didn’t even get to the level Helstar did, which is unfortunate but it was a very cool scene. Yeah, Watchtower and Solitude Aeternus. We did shows with Watchtower as well.
What kind of following do you have nowadays in Texas? I saw some pic of one of your gigs in some club, which was completely packed!
We played our home town of Houston just after the release of the album in the States at a place called Fitzgerald’s which has been around for 30 something years now, it’s right in the centre of Houston. It’s a big building. We haven’t had any 50 or 100 people shows in our hometown; it’s always been several hundred. The largest one was probably 500 people or something like that. San Antonio, probably something similar to that. Austin has changed, there’s so much competition, not just in metal but music in general. There’s so much for a listener to do, on any given night there’s hundreds of bands playing everywhere so it’s a very competitive and hard market these days, unless you’re playing on a big package tour or something.
What about if you go to cross the border down to Mexico?
We played one show in Juarez last year and it was okay, but we haven’t been back. We’ve had offers to go to different areas of Latin America but we haven’t addressed them yet so it’s hard to say right now. We’ve pretty much done Southern California, we did a little run there and we’re started to build up a little scene there near the San Markets which is outside of San Diego. We played in LA this year, played in Vegas this year…
People are still hungry for the old school classic metal?
Yeah, I really think that the whole Bay Area and LA scene is starting to pick up with a lot of younger bands coming up now, so whether or not a whole lot of those kids know who we are remains to be seen but we’ve got fans who are young, 17-18 year olds and then we’ve got the guys who are our age that are like ‘man, I can’t believe you finally came here!’ So I think it’s just about getting in people’s faces and letting them hear us and see us live.
James has many other involvements such as Seven Witches, Killing Machine and solo things…
James stays busy. And that’s what he does – he’s a vocalist, he’s an entertainer. So he’s working with Jack Frost and Seven Witches again and having a good time. He also does his Sabbath Judas Sabbath which is his cover band basically. And he’s got several chapters of those, he’s got one in the Texas/Houston region, he’s got one in the south west for doing gigs in Southern California. He’s even got one down in Florida. So he tries to stay busy playing music, singing, you know. The rest of us pretty much have full time jobs and other obligations. So it really works out for Helstar that we can come over here to Europe for several weeks at a time and do what we need to do, and then the rest of the time he’s off doing what he needs to do. We get in shows whenever we can.
This works for you like touring in blocks?
Last year we came to Europe and played three festivals separately, like on different weekends, but this year we wanted to do something proper where we came and just hit a bunch of cities. We didn’t play as many shows as we had wanted to but we did come here and got out and around and played where we had not played. And the response has been great from people. People have been saying ‘oh I saw you at this and that, I saw you at Rock Hard and it’s even better now’. The thing is, we’re just gelling as a band, and we’re becoming more of a unit and a machine.
Several metal bands have come back or otherwise reunited, but do you personally view this reunion thing?
I can’t speak for anyone else but I think it’s great that some of the bands who were really doing it are doing it again, and for us – Larry and I were doing our other band and it was more just a hobby. And then we started playing more and more and he was like ‘wow’ – you know. Then we got the offer to do the Helstar reunion show and we thought, ‘one show, that’ll be it’. We got together and it was like we’d never separated, so we thought ‘maybe we should do more?’ Then people started asking us ‘would you like to play here?,’ ‘would you like to do this?’ and that led to recording an album, and then that led to recording another album. It’s been fun, we’re just going with it. It’s not about the money; we’re not making tonnes of cash doing this. It’s just about getting out and doing something. Me personally, I never got to come to Europe back when I was in the band a long time ago so it’s been really exciting for me to be able to come over multiple times.
HELSTAR’S CULT AND FOLLOWING
You have a huge underground cult following here in Europe, did you expect to have this? You have now played at Headbangers Open Air, Keep It True etc…
Back in the day I knew we had a good following here in Europe, we were even charting in certain places. But for whatever reason we never made it over here. So I knew we had a following, but I was surprised to learn that we still had a following. It’s been a pleasant surprise to say the least.
Do you think one of reasons is the internet as people are constantly talking about old bands like Helstar?
Oh yeah, well when I first started getting on the internet in the early 90’s and started to do searches and things when I wasn’t in Helstar I thought: I wonder what metal is doing right now? Because I kind of walked away from the whole scene. And then I started seeing that there was people talking and saying ‘Helstar was this’ and ‘Helstar was this’ and little by little I found out that kept it alive, I think. Then obviously as the net grew and more people were owning computers at home it seems to have grown. So it’s definitely helped.
Finally do you still keep your eyes on what’s up within metal?
Yeah, to an extent, I don’t know all the bands that were up here but we definitely knew some of the newer ones. Larry really keeps up with everything that’s going on, he buys all kinds of things. His son likes to listen to a lot of new bands. I’m kinda stuck in listening to my classics. Every now and then I’ll hear a new band that will come along that I’ll listen to like a Warbringer or something like that and I’ll say ‘these guys are good’.